Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Americans Without Running Water

According to a 2022 report from DigDeep, around 2 million Americans lack access to running water and/or a flush toilet. This number includes the estimated 560,000 homeless population in our cities and communities that many see daily, but there are over 1,400,000 mostly rural Americans who are housed but lack running water and basic indoor plumbing. These are the invisible poor.

DigDeep used information collected by the American Community Survey (ACS), a product of the US Census Bureau. The ACS asks households whether they have access to complete plumbing facilities, defined as running water, a tap, shower or bath, and (until recently) a toilet. The American Housing Survey (AHS), another tool used by DigDeep identifies that about 22 million American households use septic systems rather than being connected to a centralized sewer; but do not identify what portions of these septic systems are functioning properly.

DigDeep highlighted the rural poor populations located in the rural south and West Virginia, undocumented immigrant communities along the Mexico-United States border, poor communities in the central valley of California and Native American communities in the Navajo Nation.

Lower-income farmworkers in the Central Valley tend to use private wells and septic systems because they live in towns that were originally built as labor camps without water systems or infrastructure. Many of these towns are unincorporated, and under the control of counties. As DigDeep points out the lack of infrastructure may have its origin in biased world view. “Tulare County’s 1971 general plan stated that it was not worth investing in water and sewer infrastructure in 15unincorporated communities because they had “little or no authentic future.” Many of these primarily low-income and minority areas still face water access challenges as a result.”

The areas in rural California without water and sanitation spans Tulare County, the Central Coast, the Coachella and Imperial Valleys, the Tehachapi Mountains, and mobile home parks in Riverside, San Bernardino, and Orange Counties.

DigDeep estimates that 30% of the Navajo Nation lacks access to running water and must haul water or use springs and wells which if properly done can be a good source of water. Though the region itself has a wealth of water resources, the Navajo were left out of compacts allocating water use in the West. The Indian Health Service estimates that about $200 million is needed to provide basic water and sanitation access in all Navajo homes. Money is the big problem. 

Even then, many households on the Navajo Nation are not good candidates for centralized water systems because extending lines to low-density, mountainous areas is expensive. Many  Navajo rely on unregulated wells and  springs. There are an estimated 520 abandoned uranium mines in the region that may have contaminated groundwater.  The Navajo Nation encompasses 27,000 square miles across New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah and has  over 332,000 members.

Colonias are residential areas located along the United States-Mexico border, in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. These areas began developing 70 years ago as peri-urban or rural subdivisions, and many have since been absorbed into urban or suburban communities. Colonias are home to about half a million people, the majority of whom are Latino.

Many of the Colonias are not connected to the nearby public water supplies. Families haul water by car or on foot, and purchase trucked water at a cost of up to $250 per month. Residents also use unregulated private wells (as I do). Poorly designed and maintained wells cannot provide reliable and good quality water.

Access to sanitation is the most serious water access concern in the rural South- rural Mississippi, Alabama and the Delta region. A septic system that can function in this type of black soil with a shallow water table can cost up to $30,000 (I have an AOSS- alternative septic system). Instead, some residents use PVC pipes to remove wastewater away from homes, sometimes right into their back yards, a practice known as “straight-piping.”

Straight-piped systems, failing septic systems, and wastewater lagoons generate considerable public health impacts, including the resurgence of water-borne illnesses believed to have been eradicated in the United States. The poor do not have the resources to maintain water and septic systems. 

Communities in parts of rural Appalachia lack of household water access, poor water quality, and/or lack of wastewater services. Some areas use old and abandoned private water systems constructed by coal companies originally to serve their workers. These systems were abandoned when the companies folded. Others, communities are in the hills are simply not connected to water systems because remote locations and mountainous terrain make the cost of line extension to relatively few households untenable. Instead, residents collect water from mine shafts or use artesian springs, and streams. These sources can be polluted by mine runoff.

Some communities that lack access to water and sanitation are simply too small and remote to support centralized water systems. This is especially true in the more far-flung Texas colonias or in isolated communities on the rural Navajo Nation. Other regions have environmental conditions that make traditional solutions prohibitively expensive, the black soils in the rural south simply don’t “perc” and cannot support a traditional septic system. The real story with rural and remote communities is that it costs money to build and time and money to maintain water systems. DigDeep suggests that small clustered systems may be the answer for remote locations. It still takes money to operate and maintain a small system. 

Our nation’s drinking water infrastructure system is made up of 2.2 million miles of underground pipes that deliver drinking water to millions of people. Though there are more than 148,000 active drinking water systems in the nation, just 9% of all community water systems serve 78% of the population- over 257 million people. The rest of the nation is served by small water systems (about 8%) and private wells (about 14% of the population). Clearly, DigDeep are made up of folks who get their water from the public water supply. 

Funding for drinking water infrastructure has not kept pace with the growing need to address the aging infrastructure nationwide. Despite the growing need for drinking water infrastructure, the federal government’s share of capital spending in the water sector fell from 63% in 1977 to 9% of total capital spending in 2017. Under the 2021 Infrastructure Bill, EPA will allocate $7.4 billion for water to states, Tribes, and territories for 2022, with nearly half of this funding available as grants or principal forgiveness loans that are intended to remove barriers to investing in essential water infrastructure in underserved communities across rural America and in urban centers.

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